The Half-Life of Facts

When I picked up The Half-Life of Facts from the library hold shelf, the book next to it had gold edged pages that caught my eye. Turned out to be a guide to becoming a Pick Up Artist. I sure hope my dorky facts book didn’t catch some sort of literary STD. (Since I’m talking about facts here, I should probably point out that to the best of my knowledge literary STDs don’t actually exist. Don’t go starting any internet rumours.)

I’ve run into a few people who “don’t believe in” science and this always just baffles me. But I guess a lot of people do take science on faith – this is The Truth because it’s Science. Then scientists go and say a whole bunch of contradictory stuff and hey, if you tell the police seventeen different stories they’ll throw you in jail. So what’s up with all those flaky scientists who cant make up their minds whether global warming is real or Pluto is a planet? And what did they do to poor Brontosaurus?

So I think I get it. And of course you shouldn’t accept everything vaguely science-sounding; that’s how urban legends about the medicinal properties of Diet Coke are born. Go ahead and disagree. Bonus points if you can provide some sensible explanation without shrieking about Socialism, Big Oil, unions, Wall Street, Rob Ford, etc. But when you start talking about whether you “believe in” evolution, my eye starts to twitch a bit.

The premise of the book is that facts are just temporary, subject to correction without notice. Change is hard, so we default to the world as it was when we were young and impressionable and Pluto was a planet (or whatever.) Oftentimes, I seem to see people bemoaning that there’s too much change these days, too many iPhones and tweets and our caveman brains just aren’t up to it. But this is a pleasantly optimistic book which thinks that facts mostly change for the better. More research, more computing power, more technology gets us better facts. “Sometimes we get things entirely wrong, or not as accurate as we would like. But on the whole, the aggregate collection of scientific knowledge is progressing toward a better understanding of the world around us.” There are graphs about this, if you like graphs. And I do.

I almost feel like one of these days I might get that jet-pack I’ve been wanting.

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